Prison Books Update: The credibility of this interview with Steve Jablonski has been called into question. Please see comments section of this article for a written statement regarding the time Steve Jablonski spent on the run.
An interview with grand jury resister Steve Jablonski
If you were contacted by the FBI, what would you do? Do you know who you would call? Would you be able to find a lawyer? Would you quit your job? Would you talk to your partner, your comrades, your parents? More importantly, would you talk to the government? If the FBI informed you that you were being made to stand before a grand jury, at which you could not have a lawyer present and you might face jail time if you did not answer questions—what would you do?
In 2012, several anarchists in the Pacific Northwest had to answer these questions. They were brought before the court to determine if they knew anything or anyone that was connected to a riot that broke out on May Day of that year. Three people kept their mouths shut and did several months in jail. One other person talked and was released, and quickly vanished without telling her former friends what she had done.
What follows is the experience of another person, Steve Jablonski, who took another route. While standing in solidarity with other people in the Pacific Northwest who resisted the grand jury, Steve instead decided to leave the country in order to avoid spending time in jail. Steve, like his comrades, kept his mouth shut in the face of government repression, but also faced other obstacles. He had to contend with the police forces of another country, and continues to face the realities of political repression now that he has returned.
There are many ways to defy the powers that be. Sometimes, you keep your mouth shut and do a few months; other times, you flee the country. We leave it up to you, dear reader, to choose what is right for you.“Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.”
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you arrive in the Pacific Northwest and become an anarchist?
I grew up in New Jersey, about 45 minutes outside of New York City. I lived out there till I was eighteen, when I moved out to Olympia, Washington to start going to college. I started getting interested in anarchist ideas when I was around thirteen our fourteen. I was introduced to them through the punk and hardcore music I was listening to at the time. But up until I moved to Olympia, anarchism was always just words and ideas in my head; I was not involved with any anarchist projects.
Once I moved to Olympia, I started being a part of the anarchist movement. I came across my first black bloc about a month after I moved out to Washington, at the Seattle Anti-War demo that happened in October 2007. But shortly after that, all of the port militarization resistance stuff was happening in Olympia [physical blockades of military equipment being used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan]. This was the first time I witnessed street fighting with the cops, property destruction as a political (or “anti-political”) tactic, building barricades in the street, etc. The resistance obviously was not explicitly anarchist, but there were lots of different anarchists involved in the various organizing meetings and street confrontations. So basically, since 2007 I have been living in the Puget Sound area, aside from the time I spent in Montreal. I have maintained being heavily involved in anarchist projects since arriving in Olympia.
Why did the FBI target you after the May Day riot on 2012?
Well, the story of the FBI targeting me actually started about a year or so before the 2012 May Day riot in Seattle. In early 2011, there were a lot of anti-police demos in Seattle around the murder of John T. Williams. He was an indigenous man who was known in the city for being a prolific wood carver. He was shot dead at point blank range by Seattle pig Ian Burke. Burke was acquitted of all charges and this triggered several confrontational demos in Seattle. Along with these demonstrations, there were various acts of anonymous property destruction around the Puget Sound area, mainly in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia. The two biggest actions were the attempted arsons of the police substations in both Seattle and Olympia. A few days after the attempted arson on the cop-shop in Olympia, I was approached by FBI agents when I was taking a jog around my neighborhood. They rolled up on me in an unmarked car and started talking a bunch of shit to me. They said things about how me and my friends were going to go to prison for a long time and they knew that we were the ones who burnt down the substation, that it was just a matter of time before they would come and arrest us. They also referenced me as “Mr. Sabot Infoshoppe,” because that was the name of the anarchist student group in Olympia that I was the coordinator for.
A few months after that, the FBI went and talked to both my mom and my aunt on the same day, both of whom live in New York. They told them how I was an anarchist terrorist and how I was going to end up in prison if I don’t change the direction of my life. A few months later I got detained by the TSA/FBI when I was flying down to the Bay Area. They told me they knew I was an anarchist and, once again, that I was going to end up in prison for a long time for the things my friends and I had done.
Several months after the May Day riot on May 1st, I received a phone call from someone saying he was an FBI agent. He referred to himself as “Special Agent McNeil” and said he had a subpoena that he needed to deliver to me. Obviously, at that moment it was a huge shock to receive such a phone call, but at the same time, the FBI had already harassed me multiple times before, so it was not entirely out of the blue.
How did you come to a decision to leave the country?
After sitting down with a couple of friends and talking over all the options I had available, I decided that I did not want to walk into my own prison cell. If you refuse to testify before a grand jury, you are likely to end up serving a prison sentence for civil contempt. I knew that under no circumstance would I testify at the grand jury and therefore that I would be going to prison for up to eighteen months. But I had a very unique circumstance; a subpoena is only valid if it is delivered to you in person. Because the FBI had the wrong address, they were not able to locate me. I definitely don’t think they expected me to just take off like I did. In reality if they had never called me and had just tracked me down, my options would have been entirely different.
After I’d sat down with friends, the choice became pretty clear. I totally understand that prison is a reality of life for many people in this world and that by my involvement in anarchist activities I certainly risk ending up spending some time there. But something about presenting myself to the state for a prison sentence did not sit well with me.
Was it difficult for you to get into Canada?
Actually no, it was surprisingly easy. I mean, the emotional and mental aspect of leaving my friends and not knowing where I was going and what I was doing was extremely terrifying, but the actual border process was simple. At that point, I don’t think the FBI knew that I was going to leave the country. I think they underestimated just how committed all the grand jury resisters were.
I took a bus from Bellingham, which is only about thirty minutes south of the US/Canada border. I told the border agent I was going to Vancouver for a few days to look at grad schools and within three or four minutes I had entered into Canada. It was one of the most surreal things I have ever experienced.
Were the authorities aware of you living in Canada?
For sure. Within a few months of my arrival in Montreal, I was stopped by CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service)—which is like the Canadian equivalent of the FBI, but they do not have arresting powers. I had also gotten voicemails to my old US phone from “Special Agent McNeil,” about how I was not going to win this battle and I would regret my decisions. It was also pretty obvious that my new phone was tapped and that some of the emails from my yahoo account were being read by the FBI.
What was the emotional toll while living in this situation?
The emotional toll was really, really heavy. Being away from my friends, who I’m closer to than my family, was definitely hard. Also, none of us knew that I was going to be gone for twenty months. The Grand Jury ended up getting a six-month extension, which caused another delay in my return.
The hardest part was that my older brother died in December of 2012, when I was still in exile. Because of my legal situation, I was not able to attend the funeral or spend any time with my family. If nothing else in the world has solidified my utter hatred for the Capitalism and the State, then being torn away from attending the funeral of my brother certainly has. It’s something I have lost a lot of sleep over and still have only begun to address.
Luckily, I was able to have a wonderful group of people in Montreal who offered more support than I have ever received in my life. I don’t know what I would have done without the anarchists I met in Montréal.
In what ways did the authorities fuck with you while you where there?
Oh man, in lots of ways. I got harassed by CSIS on multiple occasions. Throughout the year and half I was there, I would say that I was harassed about ten times. The most intense harassment came from the Montréal city police (SPVM). One night I was walking to the store a block away from my apartment and they stopped me and threw me in the squad car. They drove me about forty minutes outside the city and left me in a random industrial parking lot. They took my phone, keys, wallet, jacket, and shoes. Luckily, it was September so it wasn’t too cold, but I had to walk about a half mile just to figure out where I was and get ahold of my roommates.
Also, during my last two months there I was definitely under something like 24-hour surveillance. The cops were stopping me almost every day for a straight week and posting outside my new apartment for hours on end. It was a pretty surreal experience, but my friends in Montréal definitely did everything they could to help me get through it.
Have you been harassed since coming back to the US?
Yes. I was in the Bay Area a few weeks ago and two FBI agents approached me as I was leaving the BART station. It was a really short interaction and they basically just said they were here to welcome me back. Creepy.
But another close friend of mine was also stopped by the FBI a few weeks ago when he returning from Europe. They interrogated him for an hour or so but he refused to answer any questions. So the FBI hating on all our lives is still very much a real thing. But at this point, it is something that I am trying to get used to rather than just eliminate, because I don’t think it’s very realistic the Feds will be going away anytime soon.
Looking back, did you feel like you were supported?
Overall, I would say yes. I felt much supported by US anarchists as a whole. I think the response people had to the Grand Jury was really inspiring in a lot of ways. I think some of my individual friends could have done a better job at being there for me and given that, I have definitely been reevaluating a lot of my relationships. But at the same time, I feel like many of relationships have been strengthened from this experience, and I have built more trust, affinity, and love with some of the people in my life. I kind of feel like, if my friendships can make it through an experience this intense and straining, they should be able to make it through anything. And that is a pretty great feeling to have.
I will say that I was extremely inspired by all of the solidarity actions that happened all over the world. Just off the top of my head I can think of actions that happened in Australia, Greece, France, and definitely everywhere across the US and Canada.
Somebody burned down an “Eco-Condo” in Seattle and claimed solidarity with the grand jury resisters and that was something that really excited me. It was really nice to see that in such an intense time of repression someone(s) were willing to throw down like that. I was really happy to see people continuing the anarchist struggle in solidarity with all the resisters who couldn’t participate due to the repression we were facing.
It appears that grand juries are not going away any time soon. What advice would you give people facing a similar situation?
I would just want to let people know that there are lots of different ways to resist grand juries. For some people I think it makes a lot of sense to appear in front of the judge and then do their time for contempt, but for others fleeing a subpoena is a much more appealing option. It’s kind of like, nothing in life happens in a vacuum, and each person needs to decide on their own what way they want to resist. I think talking it over with friends is a pretty essential thing to do. I know when I first got subpoenaed I was really freaking out and it pretty much felt like my life was falling apart, but I had good friends around me who were able to keep me in check, and let me know that I wouldn’t be going through this thing alone.
But I will say that I think the “legal” strategy is a strategy that one can use, but certainly not a strategy that one has to use. Sometimes it makes sense to use this strategy, but I feel like portraying oneself as a victim is almost essential to having a successful legal strategy. In a way, it is true: when the State fucks with you, technically, you are a victim. But I try to understand that the state is fucking with me and my friends because they don’t like us, and myself and my friends in turn hate the State. For me, it is important to say that I don’t give a fuck about rights. I’m not interested in portraying myself as a victim because I view the State as my enemy. I seek no sort of resolution between myself and domination; I want it to be completely destroyed. The courts, the prisons, hetero-supremacy, white supremacy—I want to work on consistently attacking the manifestations of these forms of domination.
Clearly these are ideas that don’t fit into any sort of legal strategy, but I’m not concerned with a legal strategy. No disrespect to any anarchists who are focused on their legal strategy, but I feel really glad to be able to use this opportunity to let people know there is more than one way to successfully resist a grand jury.
Long Live Anarchy!
This interview was conducted by Doug Gilbert, the author of the book I Saw Fire: Reflections on Riots, Revolt, and the Black Bloc recently published by Little Black Cart, and a stalwart contributor to anarchist media projects in the Bay Area.